NORTH-EAST Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail by Duncan McDuie-Ra (Published by Amsterdam University Press ) is an ethnographic study of people from the North-east living and working in Delhi. Its in-depth research brings out a range of interlinked context and an insight into the delicate, complicated and complex web of the frontier region and mainland India. It sensitively captures the everyday life of North-east population in the capital, a disturbing one perhaps, and offers an alternative view of contemporary India.
The author talks to ninglun hanghal. Excerpts:
Comparatively, from 2000 there has been a rise in the number of people leaving the North-east and there was a marked change in their class profile. Does this mean that it is no longer insurgency or conflict that prompted them to leave but more of an economic migration vis-a-vis the emergence of global cities like Delhi ?
In post-Independent India, a small group of N-E elites left their homes to join the civil services, they are well connected and better off than others. In the case of conflict or violence-induced migration, the movement is not very far, for instance people from Nagaland may move to Dibrugarh, or from Mizoram to Silchar. Everything changed from around 2000 and after. There are many reasons and these differ from state to state, district to district. The tendency of migration is general – of course, violence and conflict are the main reason. But today many people from even a peaceful background (Arunachal or Mizoram) and less privileged groups leave their home states, mainly for jobs and better incomes, which the home states do not offer, especially for women. Another reason is aspirations and the evolving economy of Indian cities. Thus the profile of the migrants has changed.
Delhi, as an emerging global city, is a preferred destinations for N-E people. It provides jobs for them in retail shops, malls, restaurants and BPOs. This is further facilitated by the space you called “un-Indian” where the N-E people fit in. Do you mean to say this affirms an “un-Indianess” of people from the N-E, or in other words, N-E people are un-Indian? Further, does this mean that India too has the desire for un-Indian spaces?
Yes, the N-E people are “un-Indian” even if they try to integrate. Many North-east people told me “I don’t want to be this (an Indian)”, some do not identify themselves. And there are many who have come to Delhi and say they have a place. But as one Arunachalese said, “At home we are very much Indian (cebrating Republic Day, singing the National Anthem) but they call me chinky here (in Delhi). I don’t want to be Indian anymore.” There is a mixed reaction too, a lot of N-E people I had interacted say it is a little hard! I can imagine and understand that their parents fought against India and here they are trying hard to be Indian.
The mainland Indian middle class crave for “exotic” spaces, which I call an “un-Indian”space which is a global space. This space elevates their “status” and this requires labour forces. This is where N-E people fit in. This is a niche that didn’t exist 10 years ago for the mainland Indian middle class and this fascinates them.
Any studies or matters related to the N-E always have terms like “backward”, “head-hunter” and “sexy”. Do you see any contradictory/contrasting terms — on one hand it is backward and on the other you see a sexy (urbane) modern N-E?
I find it bizarre! N-E people were asked in Delhi if they were head-hunters, how they live and what they eat at home. N-E people are seen in two ways, one backward and the other sexy. One of the reasons is tourism – the imaginary where the N-E is seen in traditional forms and presentations, such as half-naked. In the city they work and dress, they live “urbane”. The two co-exist in the city which is the contact point.
Why do you think the N-E people dislike and are so angry at being called chinky?
In the West “chinky’ is a derogatory word; it is used to address the Chinese. To call an Asian “chinky” has much more meaning. Why should the size of eyes matter? Whether the N-E thinks “Chinese” or not is a different matter. It is used as an excuse to abuse, to yell at people who look different.
You find that in Delhi both N-E boys/men and girls/women tend to emphasise or enact much more gendered roles, not necessarily as in their home states. What are the key factors and context?
Gender roles are changing among N-E migrants. Men really struggle in Delhi and have anxiety of losing control over women. For women they enact roles that are required of them in their jobs. Whereas women get jobs easily and most of them find their “independence” in the city, they mostly preferred to stay on.
But most N-E men want to go back home, probably where they can express and actively involve themselves in work that is masculine or presumed to be for men, such as politics.
In one of your chapters you deal with “Place-making in the city” which has a lot to say about the locals, or the host population of the migrant communities which “allow”or provide such spaces/places to be created. Are such places a forceful or grabbing space? Does this relate to problems faced by the N-E, such as attacks?
The host population benefits from these spaces (created by the migrant) in terms of earning, such as rent for rooms. Yes, there is acceptance by the host population (or the locals) and there is successful space-creating by the N-E people, such as opening a shop (eg, in Munirka). But there are tensions between locals and N-E migrants and this is a reality. Definitely, to some extent the N-E people face problems once they become visible and have a space. Attacks on women take place when the locals know where to find a target.
One disturbing fact is the brain drain that you have mentioned. How do you see this trend?
This is depressing to see bright N-E young people working in shops and BPOs in Delhi while they can do a lot more in their home states. Also the N-E people living in the cities themselves look down on their own people back home.
All the bright, good students left their home states, even if you have a good university in the N-E.
You observed and found that North-easterners enact complex and multi-layered identities. Is this more of an “identity crisis” or confusion or transition ?
It is transition.The N-E and its people are cosmopolitan, while “mainland” India is insular. To many N-E people, being in Delhi helps ease some of the tensions back home. Today there is a positive element, such as the back and forth movement; a constant traffic between the N-E and mainland India. But many N-E people still don’t feel at home here, they are not part of the city, they are not members of the residents’ welfare associations. It will take a lot of time to be part of the city for N-E people.
You concluded in your study that the N-E is in a mess. That the region and the people cannot be studied within a nation-state boundary and that the borders are unsettling. What and how do we read from this conclusion?
The trans-boundary is an important aspect. But there is a change; from not wanting to be an Indian, N-E people are now coming and living here in Delhi. This also tells us a lot about the city – how it accommodates them, such as the church, the pork shop. There are also elements that want the N-E out from Delhi, while some are paternal. But the N-E people handle things here (Delhi) very well. They are very impressive.
The N-E and its people are changing. There is a generational shift. Today parents want their children to venture out of their homes/ states. This indicates how people from the N-E view India. They are prepared to tolerate. Moreover, the city needs them, of course for labour. There is a changing scenario of trust. There are more and more encounters between the N-E frontier and mainland India.
Duncan McDuie-Ra is a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
The interviewer is a Delhi-based freelance contributor
The Statesman - NE page , December 23,2012